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To Be a Transformational Leader, You Must Be Queer-Minded

In the context of leadership, the importance of seeking ‘self-actualization’ cannot be understated. You must be able to face and lead yourself in order to be a great leader.

This is an excerpt from the new book, The Souls of Queer Folk: How Understanding LGBTQ+ Culture Can Transform Your Leadership Practice (Publish Your Purpose, 2023).

The question of what constitutes good leadership is no less a fascinating proposition today than it was yesteryear. The more we see misdirection and poor guidance, the more we can recognize good leadership.

If you have spent any significant amount of time on this planet, you have probably witnessed, been exposed to or had to overcome poor leadership at some point in your personal or professional life. While poor leadership can assume the worst qualities of narcissism and treat dissent as an affront to reason or an assault on the world order, good leadership embraces timely feedback and values differing opinions. Whereas poor leadership surrounds itself with like-minded and “like-looking” sycophants in order to glorify its narrow view of the world, strong leadership creates a tent that welcomes people from a variety of backgrounds and relishes global-mindedness. Further, while poor leadership is often beset by scandal and the “wheeling and dealing” machinations of the self-interested; effective leadership possesses a moral compass that is purposeful, deeply rooted and socially conscious.

Now, if I were a pessimistic or morbid fellow, I would probably begin and end this book right here and write a maudlin epitaph on leadership. In that case, we could treat the current state of leadership as a fixed and immutable phenomenon and conclude that leadership is in some existential crisis. But that probably wouldn’t be good leadership on my part.

So, as I thought about leadership and, more importantly, the prospect of transformational leadership — the kind that changes hearts and minds and speaks to the better angels of our nature — I found myself looking for new sources of inspiration. Those revelations came from a place that, while familiar, would certainly be unexpected to the masses of people who study, seek and advise on the subject of leadership development. What I discovered is that a source for, and example of, transformational leadership lies in a special place otherwise known as the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ+) community.

If you remain curious and open to new ways of learning, I can assure you: A review of the LGBTQ+ community and its cultural values is but one gateway — albeit an important one — to transforming and revolutionizing your leadership practice. But throughout my research study, which spanned several years, I discovered some important information:

LGBTQ+ people are more than the caricatures that mainstream society would portray us to be; we are perhaps more culturally significant than even those of us who identify as LGBTQ+ give ourselves credit for.

LGBTQ+ people are as culturally rich and layered as any other cultural group on the planet.

I also discovered cultural values that, while not exclusive to our community, are positioned and aggregated in such a way within the LGBTQ+ ethos that they create a unique, powerful and original cultural portrait that must be illuminated.

Yet, in the process of attempting to elevate our culture in a new way, something else happened: I realized that LGBTQ+ culture is a demonstrably generative way to inspire leaders and to develop new and more effective forms of leadership. LGBTQ+ people are not just the latest entrants to the ball of would-be intercultural groups, simply looking to popularize the field of diversity and inclusion. By virtue of our lived experience, we are also teachers, conductors and mentors for how a society plagued by poor stewardship can be guided by transformational leadership.

Being a transformational leader is more than just memorizing leadership competencies. It requires our leaders to transform themselves in a way that balances self-interest with the collective good, chooses inspiration over the short-term appeal of reveling in pain, and recognizes that intellect and pragmatism must also be powered with compassion.

Transformational leadership is a consciousness and a calling. It is about beingness, not just doingness. You must be able to face and lead yourself in order to be a great leader.

But in a world where leaders are seemingly doing twice as much work with half as many resources as their predecessors, the “how to” aspect of becoming a transformational leader can seem elusive or too complex to master in any discernible way. According to a Gallup survey in 2020 and 2021, leadership burnout is getting worse; managers are experiencing high levels of stress and anxiety, and the rate of depression among managers has increased in recent years. What’s more, only 1 out of 4 managers strongly agree that they can maintain a healthy balance between work and their personal commitments. And unfortunately, analysts expect the current leadership trends to continue among massive shifts in the labor market.

As more and more people quit their jobs in the era of the Great Resignation, leaders are facing more pressure to transform their working environments for existing workers while creating an appealing and inclusive workforce for prospective employees. Given these dynamics, it’s hard to imagine that leaders have the wherewithal to be transformational when the proverbial ground they are standing on feels unstable.

Therefore, to support current and burgeoning leaders and to ensure that any fledgling attempts to be positively impactful and transformational are successful, our job as thought leaders is to provide modern, relevant and generative frameworks for our leaders to be the stalwarts the world needs them to be. Cultural genius™ is the social, intellectual and leadership acumen that social groups (particularly, minoritized communities) develop by virtue of their cultural pathway. Fortunately, by virtue of their cultural genius, LGBTQ+ people have provided a cultural blueprint and powerful case study that not only exhibits transformational leadership, but also teaches every leader how to begin that journey of personal growth.

Naturally, there will be some who will chafe at the notion that the LGBTQ+ community holds value, much less that it can teach anything valuable about leadership. There will be some who will try to reduce this book’s theme to cultural egoism; or that it is the latest in embellished, progressive propaganda designed to re-engineer society and eradicate traditional values.

Such thinking would not only be rash but foolhardy. Not only would those naysayers be ignoring the increasing visibility and ubiquity of the LGBTQ+ community, they would also be dismissing the import of the lessons that the community is trying to impart. And given then the depth, magnitude and breadth of the challenges we face as a society in the 21st century, we cannot afford to leave any wisdom on the table — even if it comes from a community that is still irrationally discriminated against and massively misunderstood.

The leadership wisdom inherent in LGBTQ+ cultural values should not be determined by the relative obscurity in which they have unfolded, but by the persistent results they have created. Despite the sum weight of the church, the political system, and the social craze to eliminate LGBTQ+ sensibilities and influence; the community remains a fixture in our social fabric. LGBTQ+ people have changed the world in qualitative and quantifiable ways, which is in no small part due to the values we adhere to in our cultural journey on a customary basis.

For example, one under-recognized aspect of Queer leadership is the ability to interrogate oneself and be self-reflective as a way of generating greater self-awareness. Self-identified Queer people across the world initiate a self-discovery process (commonly known as “coming out”) that allows them to clarify their values, sensibilities and persona. By “coming out,” the Queer person is saying: “I want to realize my full potential and fully harness the talents I possess in order to live a more fulfilled life.” In turn, a more fulfilled life leads to a more conscious existence; and a more conscious existence leads to a more inclusive and conscientious world where others can leverage their talents and become their “best selves.”

In the context of leadership, the importance of seeking “self-actualization” cannot be understated — particularly, as leaders model behaviors for other people. If leaders take the opportunity to explore their strengths and frailties, then others within their community will also seek to understand themselves more fully. If leaders possess the courage to reveal themselves and their values and showcase their authenticity, then others within their sphere of influence will also demonstrate the confidence to be themselves. And if leaders can create the space to peer into all aspects of their being, regardless of whether those aspects are positive or negative; those same leaders will be able to recognize where they are inspiring growth and high performance, and where they are limiting innovation and human potential. The aforementioned qualities are essential to facilitating transformational leadership.

As with most cultural phenomena, outsiders may see “coming out” as just a superficial or self-promoting exercise; but it is the culmination of a long, arduous journey whereby Queer individuals examine and explore who they are. And although leadership is typically thought of as an external orientation, it more importantly has an internal dimension that is critical for inspiring change at any level. A person can’t lead others if they cannot lead themselves. The ability of Queer people to embrace self-awareness, discernment and perceptiveness are just a few of the LGBTQ+ cultural values that can inspire leaders in any industry, organization or community; and as more people become aware of the cultural gifts and ethos of the LGBTQ+ community, the more we can elevate our appreciation of this misunderstood community and the more that we can correct our sometimes misguided application of leadership.